Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The porch that Sam built.

This is the porch that Sam built.

These are the grapes that lay on the porch that Sam built.

This is the vine that held the grapes that lay on the porch that Sam built.

This is the man, all shaven and shorn, that cut the vine that held the grapes that lay on the porch that Sam built.

This is the ladder, all wobbly and worn, that supported the man, all shaven and shorn, that cut the vine that held the grapes that lay on the porch that Sam built.

This is the lady, all forlorn, who held the ladder, all wobbly and worn, that supported the man, all shaven and shorn, that cut the vine that held the grapes that lay on the porch that Sam built.

This is the vine, too heavy to be born, that fell on the lady, all forlorn, that dropped the ladder, all wobbly and worn, that dumped the man, all shaven and shorn, who sat on the lady, all forlorn, when he cut the vine that held the grapes that lay on the porch that Sam built.

News summary: New porch finally completed! Grape vine successfully removed from east side of house. Only a few bruises and scratches to prove it -- and a mountain of grapes.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Last lecture

Suzanne recently read the Last Lecture, by Randy Pauch, and sent me an email.

"Have you read it? It made me think of you," she wrote.

Two weeks ago I found myself in the Chicago O'Hare airport, facing an eight hour flight to Frankfurt on my own. The book was lying on a shelf in an airport bookstore. I checked its price and number of pages, calculated the dollar cost per hour of my time reading, and walked away. Too short, and too expensive.

My flight was delayed by an hour. I went back to the bookstore and bought the book.

I finished reading just as dinner was being served on the plane. I cried a little.

OK, I received dinner with streaming eyes and nose.

Freak, thought the flight attendant, handing over dinner.

Freak, thought the guy sitting next to me, sliding further against the window.

Maybe I am a freak.

Suzanne said the book made her think of me. It made me think of me, as well. I found it a very thought provoking, introspective kind of book. In fact, I'm amazed she thought of anyone else while reading it.

On second thought, I also thought of Tim while reading it. He has some of the same connections as the author.

In case you are not aware, it was written by a relatively young university professor (of computer science) who had terminal cancer. It is his reflection on life -- what he had lived, how he had lived it, and how he intended to live the last months remaining. It was motivated by a lecture he gave at CMU, which you can see on YouTube. Actually, you have probably all seen it.

It made me wonder what I would do differently if I knew I had just six months to live.

I would say a few things publicly.

I would tell important people I loved them a little more carefully and frequently. In particular, I would tell Jonathan what a special guy he is. He is a very silly boy, who loves to make people laugh. My cousins say he reminds them of my grandfather, who was a silly guy -- a clown and an eternal optimist and one of the men I admire most. I want Jonathan to grow up laughing.

He is also a very inquisitive boy, with lots of questions. I hope he also grows up asking questions. And finding his own answers. And then laughing at them.

I would tell Tim again that he is the most perfect man in the world. I think Tim would be very annoyed with me if I died in six months, after moving the family here. Very annoyed.

I would want to finish some unfinished tasks. I would want to finish some papers I'm working on. I would probably want to finish out my teaching this semester.

That's crazy! Six months left to live, and I want to finish my work?

Freak, you think, reading this post.

But on the other hand, finishing work responsibilities would be completely consistent with my life choices so far. I feel some comfort in knowing that I am already lining up my time to match those things that mean the most to me.

Or maybe I'm consistently lining up my time incorrectly.

In any case, I hope I'm still around in six months. And I hope I've finished those papers and that teaching. And I love you, family.

Thanks for the suggestion, Suzanne.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Yesterday's post

I wrote a post yesterday which I did not publish. When I write a post, I try to imagine various people in my life reading it over my shoulder. If I regret my choice of words with those friends at my side, then I know I need to edit a bit. I also imagine reading the post out loud to my tenure committee in a few years time. If it makes them shake their heads, I know I probably shouldn't post it.

Basically, I had a bad day yesterday. For those of you who missed that part of the story, I recently moved from England to a town whose name starts with a P, ends with an O, and has an O in the middle. I am working at a university here in the town of P-o-o, which I like to call Good-Ol'-Dudes University.

I am somewhat conflicted about my choice to live in P-o-o. On the one hand, the job seemed ideal for my interests. On the other hand, I am afraid of P-o-o. I am afraid of the people in P-o-o. I am afraid of people who choose to live in P-o-o. People like me, I guess.

Anyway, I had a bad day yesterday, and got depressed about living in P-o-o and working for my university here in P-o-o. There are aspects of my university that are depressing. But really, it was mostly just a bad day.

It started with the dentist. I had an appointment scheduled for me and for my boy. By the end of the appointment, I needed to sign up to get my gums peeled back and my roots scraped, and Jonathan, due to incurable thumb sucking, was slated for orthodontics in a few years. Maybe I want to try a new dentist.

Later, near the end of the day, I recalled that now that we are back in the US, we want to dump my health insurance in favor of Tim's. I called the HR people to get the dumping going, and went over to their office to sign paperwork. The HR lady basically did everything in her power to convince me I was not eligible to dump the insurance until January. Since I was, in fact, eligible, I was steadfast, and did finally sign the paperwork. However, the HR lady got pretty annoyed with me. So I left annoyed with the annoyed HR lady, and annoyed with the fact that this university and their insurance provider would be so difficult in what should be an easy situation.

Next, I got all annoyed again over childcare here in P-o-o. A colleague who lives in a more child-friendly town told me several weeks ago that she always put her son into after school programs and day cares, because nannies are unlicensed. But that doesn't seem to be an option in P-o-o. This town is so completely backwards that they don't seem to have anything like that. Certainly not at Jonathan's current preschool. Good-Ol'-Dudes University, my employer, has nothing to assist faculty with childcare. Grandma, who investigated daycares within reasonable commute distance, reported that they all looked gloomy and depressing. Which is gloomy and depressing.

The attitude of the people in this town seems to be "we live in the shadow of G.O.D. University. Therefore, we are perfection. We do not need to change."

Even the stoplights here in P-o-o are depressing. Traffic for three directions sits parked at red lights for three minutes while nobody moves. Hello! Pressure pads?

This is now my home. These are now my neighbors. I live here. This is a permanent job. I have moved my family here. We have spent our savings on a house we could not sell in the current housing market. There is no turning back.

I ended the day feeling depressed. But things will be fine. It still is a good job. While the university has its... peculiarities... I do intend to be happy here. I just don't know sometimes how to ignore the fact that I live in P-o-o.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The security level is Orange

I am back in the US again. I finished my tenth transatlantic plane flight in fifteen weeks yesterday. I have been out of the US enough days in a year that the tax people will be happy. Or rather, I will be happy that I don't have to pay as much in taxes. I am hoping hoping hoping not to cross the Atlantic Ocean for at least a year. I know that sounds really lame to some of you who would really like to cross the Atlantic, but I'm just really tired of being really tired. Perhaps if I could fly away to relax or to go sight seeing I would feel better, but 23 hours of travel followed by a serious work week just isn't good for the heart or soul. I feel like I'm going to cry.

So, in the Chicago airport, they interrupt a boring pre-migrainal layover with occasional announcements that "The security level is Orange." This is supposed to inspire you to keep your belongings close and to ratchet up your personal panic level to the appropriate notch.

"Excuse me, Madam, but I don't believe you look quite harried enough. I'd like to remind you that the security level is Orange."

Of course, there is no ensuing announcement about what "Orange" means. My mobile phone in the UK was through Orange, and I was quite pleased with the company. Presumably if the security level had been Green or Blue, then we would envision green valleys and peaceful streams. Orange is supposed to remind us that we are hungry and it is time to eat. Or at least that's what home decorator websites say in the US.

Anyway, speaking of home decorating, here back at home in the US we have some very good news. The solid surface people came and put in the shower surround in the two upstairs bathrooms. So now we have two fully functional bathrooms, and one that is just waiting on shower glass.

All other progress on the house has again cranked to a halt. There is so little to do, I wish these guys would just come and do it! But they don't. This week, we are supposed to get a porch. Actually, that was supposed to happen last week. We have purchased those window wells, but they still have not been installed, although the gutter guy removed serious flooding worries. Just a bit of patching, paint, little things. I just want these guys out of my house so I can finish moving in!

But back to the security level. I think it is safe to assume that security level colors follow the rainbow. If it is red, then things are looking very bad indeed. Orange is bad, but not bad enough to cancel any flights. Yellow should make you nervous. Green more calm. Blue means all is well in the world, and when things finally hit purple, we will be sitting in circles holding hands singing kumbayah.

Anyway, now that I am back in the US, ready to go back to work tomorrow, I start making lists again of all the things to do. Teaching, teaching prep, office hours, prepare students for midterm Friday, make arrangements for project Friday, go over notes for research seminar Tuesday or Thursday. Pediatrician Monday, dentist Tuesday. Lunch meetings Tuesday and Thursday. Teaching seminar Thursday, remote seminar with South Dakota Friday. Schedule the carpet guys. Schedule the glass people to finish the shower. Schedule visiting teaching and visiting teachers -- which is a crazy thing we're supposed to do through church -- visit to make sure everyone feels loved and visited -- it's great in theory, but not this week. Submit a report about my work in England. Submit a report on my conference in Germany. Write a grant proposal. And somewhere in here I really do need to finish writing some papers, although I have only myself to blame for not using my jetlag time last week to do more on those. I mean good grief, I didn't have internet.

Anyway, I realize I am the only one reading this far into the post, that I lost everyone else somewhere in that last paragraph.

But I would like to interrupt this pre-migrainal rant to inform you that the stress level at my house is Orange.

We would like you to show the appropriate level of panic. Thank you.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Acting my age

I have a birthday approaching. I won't tell you how old I'm going to be. It will be a good number, though. A fifth power. My age won't ever be a fifth power again. Therefore, it will be a year to appreciate.

People often misjudge my age. Too high and too low.

I think it started in grad school. In my church group as a new, 21 year old grad student, I found that nearly all the women grad students seemed to have decided upon grad school after realizing they were not married yet and had no good prospects.

That's not a very nice thing to say. Let me rephrase that.

When I started grad school, I found that nearly all the other women grad students seemed to have had other priorities than school when they were 21, and were coming back to grad school several years later. Needless to say, at 21 I felt extremely young around these women.

Many of the men in said church group assumed I also must be old and passed over. That is the only way I can explain why none of them would have asked me out. I mean, me, right? Me? I was single at the time. They could have done it. And then they could have told their friends they went out with me. Someday. When I am famous.

Actually, one guy did ask me out. He found out early on in the evening that I was a grad student, not a freshman, and he turned very red and nearly choked. In the sentence in which I identified myself as a grad student, I went from cute, nervous freshman in his mind to ugly wart-ridden old lady grad student. He was very chivalrous. He didn't immediately take me home.

So here we are a few years later (ahem), and I am approaching a fifth power in age. I am no longer single, but still as good a catch as ever, even if caught (hook, line, and sinker), and feeling very youthful.

Except around grad students. I have been out of grad school for four years now, and somewhat remarkably, I left with a PhD. When I meet grad students, they are happy to look upon me as friendly face, fellow traveler. Until they find out I already have a PhD. Then, I see myself change in their eyes. I turn from fellow traveler to ugly wart-ridden old lady with a PhD. I am very, very old -- aged beyond the furthest reaches of their imaginations. For I have actually Finished.

On the other hand, here I am in Germany, mostly among people who have had PhD's much longer than I. A lady at dinner a couple of nights ago commented that "all the young people will speak" at this conference. Someone commented that there weren't many young people at the conference. And then all eyes at the table turned to me (except, of course, mine). They asked if I had my talk ready. In fact, I did. And in fact, I am. Very young, that is. Very young in my career. We're talking kindergarten. Not even tweens yet. And yes, I have since given my talk.

Lest all this talk of being young get to my head, I also should recall another incident that happened yesterday. I had a photo taken for a directory a week ago, and yesterday the proofs were available to view online. Although the pictures were small, I could still see them. There, at the corner of my smile, very clear, were wrinkles. Real, ugly, wart-ridden old lady wrinkles. That's right. Oil of Olay was right. They said I would get wrinkles without their product, and I never bought their product, and I did. I did get those wrinkles. So here we are, my age approaching a fifth power, and I definitely have wrinkles. And I definitely have a PhD. Does it get any older than that? Really?

So happy birthday to me (soon). Sign me up for that AARP card.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

In Germany

I am hiding out in the middle of the Black Forest in Germany, with no telephone, wireless, or even little paper wrapped mini soaps in my bedroom. This afternoon I walked three hours to a little hotel to eat Black Forest cake. I then attempted to catch a bus back, but found my German very inadequate. After I did a little bee dance in the bus to try to indicate where I had come from, and where I was going, the driver nodded, charged me 2.40 Euros, and drove me back through the valley. My only internet fix comes from the cafeteria, where there is unsecured wireless access. Here I sit, banana peel on my left, writing, while the guy at the table across the hall steals my passwords and empties my bank account. Except luckily, the bank account is pretty much empty after the remodel anyway. Ha! So there!

My point is that I am in the middle of nowhere. Therefore I am excused from writing.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Teenager in training

First day of preschool was Monday.

As I walked out after dropping off my son, I noticed two little girls in new dresses posed on the playground.

"Smile!" said the mother with the camera in a voice oozing cheerfulness. "First day of preschool!"

It occurred to me that I hadn't taken a picture of my son's first day of preschool.

"So what?" said Tim. "It wasn't his first day of preschool. He's been in preschool for over a year."

Yeah, but I didn't take a picture of that first day, either.

In the past week, lots and lots of "first day of preschool" photos have appeared in the blogs I follow. All the little boys and girls are growing up and going off to school. And I haven't photographed the event.

I should probably feel guilty.

I am writing this, admitting that I'm supposed to be feeling guilt. But somehow I'm not. I just don't feel like feeling guilty right now. Maybe in a year or two when Jonathan asks why I didn't scrapbook his first day of preschool, maybe then I will feel guilty. Actually, I'll probably pull out the paper supplies and tell him to scrapbook it himself.

Now I know I should feel guilty for that last sentence. What kind of a mom makes her child scrapbook his own memories? I'm just really having trouble coaxing out the guilt today. What is wrong with me?

So on to another topic, you now will ask: how does Jonathan like preschool?

Well, when I picked him up the first day of school, he said that he had a lot of fun.

"You did?" said I, "Even more fun than at your preschool in England?"

"Yes!" said he, "Because they have a tube slide here! But I didn't actually go down the tube slide."

"What did you do?" said I.

No response.

"Did you color?"


"Did you sing?"

"Yes, but we only sang one song."

"What was it?"

Long pause.

"Did you play with playdough?"


"What else?"


"Did you make any friends?"

"I don't know their names, but I played with them anyway."

"That's nice. Didn't you learn any names?"


"Did you read books?"

"No. You came too soon. I was going to read a book."

"Jonathan, I was the last mother here. I didn't come too soon."

(I think, by the way, I'm supposed to feel guilty for being the last mother to arrive. But again, I'm just not.)

Me: "I couldn't come any later."

Jonathan: Pouty face.

Me: "We can read books at home."

More pouty face.

Me: "What else happened at school?"


That's my boy. Four going on fourteen. I wonder if I should feel guilty about that?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A collection of disjoint thoughts and pictures

In our storage boxes, we found a couple of costumes for Jonathan, which he has been very excited to wear. Yes, he has played dress up before, but never full-body animal suit dress up, complete-with-tail dress up.

After two days of new outfits, Jonathan asked me what costume he got to wear next. Alas, we only had the two.

Now, were I a bit more crafty, I would post pictures next of the tool pouch I sewed for him out of an old kitchen towel. But I can't, because I am afraid my truly crafty cousins will be reading this blog, and take pity upon me. And I do not need any more pity right now. Nevertheless, Jonathan was very pleased with his tool pouch, and wore it over the tiger suit so he could fix things, just like all the contractor men who come in and out of our house at completely unpredictable times.

In other news, our new nanny has been sick for two days, and will be out again tomorrow. I have been waking up early so I can finish work at 3:30 pm and cover afternoons. Today I arrived at work by 6:30 am.

Campus is very peaceful at 6:30 am.

There are no meetings at 6:30 am.

I accomplished a lot between 6:30 am and 8:30 am. If I were more of a morning person, I would be rejoicing in those two hours. As it is, I still do appreciate the lack of meetings between midnight and 8 am. Thank you for those precious hours, oh Committee Heads. And if you are reading this, oh Department Chair, do not get any ideas about free hours for more meetings.

And finally, it's amazing what a big difference a little wood can make.

This is a picture of the hole that has been in our kitchen. It is an ingenious hole. The previous owner set up a secret laundry shoot down to the basement, hiding it in a secret kitchen cabinet. Alas, our new cabinets were not as large as the previous owners' cabinets, and so the hole was no longer secret.

Finally yesterday, after months, a couple of pieces of flooring were put in over the hole. They still need to be finished, but there is no longer any risk of sending dinner down to the laundry room. Much better!

And our other gaping hole was also fixed yesterday. That hole has been next to the staircase. The previous owners had another ingenious idea: To carpet the walls going down the stairs. Practically, I'm sure it saved them many a dent and ding to their walls. Visually, well ... let's just say the carpet had to go. So it went. It seems that going isn't a problem. Things are easy to tear out. Getting them fixed up afterwords is the real issue.

Finally, last night, the stair rail was installed! And this morning, we got bead board. The difference is amazing! And I no longer need to worry about tigers and/or dinosaurs falling down the stairs. Or at least not falling into the stairs. I don't think I can help tigers and/or dinosaurs and/or their mothers if they trip at the top step like everyone else.

Of course, the bead board on the other side has not yet been finished. You think you can have it all, but you can't.

Even so, what a difference a little wood makes, eh?

Monday, September 8, 2008

All is well

Some follow up information:

1. Mr Uber-organized, a.k.a. Tim, found the necessary tax documents within an hour of looking. The documents were tucked into a file that was neatly labeled inside a box that was neatly labeled inside a cabinet that was behind several boxes of books and a bedframe. But he found it. It is now ready to fax Monday morning. So bring it on. No one can compete with Tim's organizational prowess.

2. I love my electrician. He was recommended by a subcontractor who took pity upon us when Mr Over-contractor went AWOL. He has rewired my whole house in his evenings and weekends. Every single light switch works. Every single wire is accounted for. Every plug functions and is up to code. He recommends wiring up smoke detectors, and then all our electricity will be up to current code. And he will do it all and wire the house for phone, internet, and cable. I love the guy.

3. I live in a beautiful new (to me) 1960's home. Even if upon entrance all you see are the projects yet to be finished. Like the massive hole in the wall and the lack of a stair rail. Or the hole in the kitchen floor that drops to the laundry room. But if you overlook these things, you will see that my house is actually very nice and someday it will be very beautiful. This is easier to remember when (#1) Tim finds the tax documents and (#2) my electrician does such great work and actually gets things finished. I then remember that a little organization conquers all and eventually, projects really can be finished.

Also, not every 1960's home in the neighborhood looks as nice as ours. Even with holes in walls and floors, ours is in very good shape and I'm very pleased to be living here. Or I will be soon. So I will hereby stop complaining.

4. And the gutters have been installed (although not yet the downspouts), so we will never again repeat the all night flooding incident. As much pity as that incident generated, it was nothing as bad as having a newborn, who wakes up every two hours for weeks and weeks. I have lived through having a newborn. I can live through single night rainstorms. I am committed. Bring them on.

So all is well. Although I worry and complain and get stressed out and fussy, all is well. By November, we may be calm enough for house guests.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Borderline insanity

Very good news: Tim is back in the US. That means except for a brief (week long) trip of my own to Germany in a week, our family is all back together again. Finally. Being a single parent is not any fun. I was getting tired of waking up early in a panic every morning, trying to sort in my head the lists of all the things to be done for my house (my plumber, my electrician, my builder, my bathroom specialist, my gutter guy), my job (my teaching, my research, my committees, my new faculty orientations), my child (my nanny, my nanny tax, my preschool, my preschool homework, my child's lack of clothing), my travel (my train tickets, my talk, my papers). You see? The lists send my heart rate way up and make me ill. I am probably losing weight. Now that Tim is back, I have someone else with whom I can lose weight. You always read that weight loss is better with a partner.

Tim does not seem so keen on the weight loss through stress plan, especially as we both are bordering on underweight, if anything. He was not very happy upon arrival in our "home" late last night -- especially after touring the house. In fact, he's probably more frustrated than I with what has and has not been done with the remodeling. On the other hand, he has already been a major force for good in the unpacking project. He has moved a huge portion of boxes out of the living room into a basement storage space to wait out the remodel. We nearly have a living room.

So here's something fun. On top of all the chaos that is Life right now, chaos bordering on panic, the IRS decided to send us a letter.


They want us to pay up for our 2006 tax return, because they don't believe we really made any charitable contributions that year. They had somebody go through and figure out what we would owe had we not made any charitable contributions at all, and sent us a letter demanding that money within 30 days.

Of course, they sent the letter to the wrong address.

So now we have a couple of weeks to find the box in the basement, somewhere in a sea of boxes, with our 2006 tax documents that has the receipts proving that yes, we did indeed make all the charitable contributions we claimed to have made that year.

Um. Would you like to trade lives for a little while? Just a month or so? Please?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

In which our heroine saves the basement

I have moved to a desert-like climate. The air is so dry that my lips are chapped and my fingers have broken out into a bouquet of hangnails.

We are not supposed to have serious downpours that last multiple hours and dump high quantities of rain. We aren't. It just doesn't happen. These are the words I have been telling myself all week while moving. This is because when we finished a couple of rooms in the basement, we had to cut larger windows. And while the new windows look really great...

...the window wells were not actually finished before the main contractor went AWOL.

I have been living in some fear that the sky would open up and wash that wall of mud into the basement.

Hence my fear yesterday evening during a brief thundershower. I checked on the window wells afterwords, and found them damp, but fine. They were sufficiently deep that the rain was nowhere near the window levels.

Around 10:00 last night, it started raining harder. I checked on the wells again, and found that the level of water had risen. Moreover, it was flowing in rapidly. After checking again, I realized that the window wells were exactly under the sections of roof without gutters. Consequently, all the water from two large sections of the roof was running straight into the window wells! I hurriedly rounded up all the buckets I could find, including garbage cans and a wrapping paper storage container, dumped their contents on the living room floor, and positioned them in the mud of the window wells under the roof run off.

Before going to bed around midnight, I checked on the buckets again. They were nearly full. I emptied them all and put them back, and decided I'd better set my alarm for 2am to check them again.

At 2am, I awoke to find the buckets full and running over, and the level of water in the window wells approaching the base of the windows. Moreover, the walls around one of the wells had begun caving in, which had knocked over a couple of the buckets. I emptied and bailed for a half hour, then attempted to construct a rain guard out of cardboard and plastic paint covers.... By 4:30am it seemed to be working. I went to bed and set my alarm for 6am.

At 6am, the rain was lighter. The buckets were only about 1/3 full. The cardboard system was holding up. I emptied and did some cleaning and went to bed again around 8am. I dreamed about mud sliding in all the windows of the house.

I awoke to a loud drumming sound. The sky had opened. I ran down to check on the windows, and found the wells filling rapidly. The cardboard cover was bent under the weight of the rain off the roof, threatening to crash and dump gallons of mud and dirt into the window well. I fought it off the best I could, solo. The other well was full of water to its highest point yet.

Things were looking grim for our heroine. Little sleep, much mud, and two window wells. I will not repeat here some of the things she said while bailing water solo. Let us just say it is good she had been living in the rain of England, and had appropriate clothing for hauling mud through a downpour.

Eventually, the bailing overtook the inflow of water. Eventually, the rain lightened up, then stopped. Eventually, the sun even came out. Eventually, I lined the buckets up in the back yard and hosed them down. I called a gutter guy, got an estimate, and told him to schedule my house for the first slot he has available. I even packed the wrapping paper back into its box and found a home for it under my bed. When Tim arrives later this week, he will find it neat and clean.

The theme song of the night's events: "A little fall of rain" from the sound track to Les Miserables.

The moral: Nothing in the whole entire world can compare to home ownership.